I don’t often write about gender and science, but I have been thinking and reading about it lately. If you were hoping for my typical aloof lecturing, or overblown (yet intellectual) ranting, just wait a few days (or you could revisit what I think of David Brooks and Larry Summers).
At a wonderful dinner out at the recent Science Online Conference, I found myself explaining why I consider myself a psychologist, even though some people don’t consider the study of visual perception “psychological.” This comes up often in response to the question: “Are you going to use your psychology knowledge to analyze me?” “I’m not that kind of psychologist,” I say. Then, because the food hadn’t come yet, and I had drunk a beer on an empty stomach, I waxed poetic about the color purple. I launched into an explanation of how we perceive color, and how an answer to this question must necessarily involve more than just physics and biology. We could talk about the wavelengths of light that we are sensitive to (400-700 nanometers).
Then, we could talk about how we have three different kinds of cone photoreceptors which are sensitive to different wavelengths of light. We call these cone receptors blue, green and red, but this doesn’t describe the appearance of the cone cell but rather what kind of light it likes. At this point, I like adding a line stolen from my advisor (Denny Proffitt) that purples don’t exist. In other words, there is no single wavelength of light that will cause us to see what we call purple. The only way that we see purple is through a combination of the activity of red and blue cones. I repeat for emphasis “There is no purple, it is all in your head.” There is nothing in the world that is objectively purple. Of course, nothing is objectively red, green or blue either, but that’s another point for another time. With my students I like to review how this illustrates what a limited slice of the energy in the world we are sensitive to and even that we construct. The relevant physics in the world is a linear range of energy defined by wavelength, but our visual experience is of the color wheel. Our eyes “bend” this line and tie the ends of this line together to make our circular color experience. The purples (or pinks or magentas, depending on how you label these colors) are the knot. Here is a great little video from minutephysics describing this (he uses pink instead of purple, and maybe magenta is even closer but the principle is the same)
I was telling this story surrounded by many women in different stages of their science and science communication careers. I found myself thinking about this example as I was considering my male privilege in the world of science (and just about every other world I move in). As human beings we are only sensitive to a small slice of the energy in the world, but as males we are also only sensitive to a certain slice of the social information in the world. Sometimes what it means to be privileged is to allow this information to just wash over you without noticing–the way that TV and radio waves are going through your head right now. Most of the time this ignorance is welcome. I may have been very nervous about my session leading up to Scio12, but I never considered whether people would judge me for my maleness. As I pictured being outed as a hopeless incompetent, I didn’t give a thought to how perceptions of my incompetence might “spread” to other males. I might have worried that people might find psychology a soft science, but most of the nervousness that scattered around my mind was about me personally. I was a genderless college psychology professor because that’s all I considered people would see. This often prohibits the possibility of being proud of group membership (I’ve never felt proud to be male college professor), but to paraphrase Louis C.K., I would continue to renew my maleness if I had to check a box every year. I’ll have more to say about white privilege in my next post, but obviously this figures in too.
Despite the bliss this ignorance provides, this selective blindness isolates me from other people I care about by extending the difference between the way we see the world. In other words, I often don’t see the subtle (and sometimes loud) purple hues of gender. So I have tried to take the perspective of others and see what they see. This is uncomfortable, and of course, impossible. But I subscribe to the Jay Smooth hygienic theory of prejudice. It isn’t something you can get vaccinated against (he says “No, I’m fine, I saw that movie Traffic and got my racism removed”) but something we need to maintain our guard against, like plaque on our teeth. So while I won’t give advice (a la Gene Marks in Forbes) and write “if I were a female scientist,” I find it important to try to take someone else’s perspective. In this case, it means seeing gender as a dimension that matters. My fellow privileged class members sometimes protest, “But it doesn’t matter in this instance!” But for me, that’s not really the point; the point is that it matters enough to become a corrosive worm in people’s consciousness. The only way to dislodge that worm is not to ignore it, but to acknowledge it in your own mind even if you don’t always point it out, and work to fight it.
That being said, even as I know that being blind and mute is not the best policy, I must confess that all too often I err on this side. I don’t know whether it is due to shyness, discomfort, or perhaps even cowardice. While I have always worked and lived with strong women, I rarely mention their gender, and try to ignore my own. My current department chair is an amazingly accomplished female scientist. My graduate school cohort comprised me and two women, both of whom have research-one, tenure track jobs. My second job out of college was in an office staffed with approximately 80% women. I was an assistant professor at a women’s college for two years and was totally happy with the fact it was all women. I had been happy to have classes full of women and a lab of only women. But that job, my first as a professor, was 3000 miles away from my and my wife’s family, so I looked for another job closer. Through sheer coincidence, my lab now happens to have only female undergraduate research assistants. And of course, I return home to two of the strongest females I’ve ever known, my wife and our four-year-old daughter (sample request: “Daddy, how about this? How about you do what I tell you to do, and you DON’T do what I don’t tell you to do.” And this is what she says when she’s not angry).
But I haven’t remarked upon this or noted it as unusual. With my family I try to tell my daughter she can be anything, if she wants to be a fairy princess ballerina, but also play on the Women’s World Cup Soccer Team, I smile. I mostly avoid trying to explain to my sons about real world adult sexism, because it seems not to fit with their eight-year-old view of the world. With my students, I haven’t discussed the barriers that women face in science to my research assistants; I just give them the best mentorship I can. I have never seen myself as qualified to prepare them for the ways that their gender will affect their experience. I wouldn’t dream of discussing a woman’s appearance or choice of attire for a job interview, even if it’s informality matched the overall perception that she wasn’t up to professional standards. But if someone else does bring it up? Do I have the stones to say “I don’t think that should matter” or “I don’t think you would be saying that if she were a man” even if the speaker was a woman herself? Unfortunately not.
I tell myself I am working up to that sort of thing. In the meantime, I do my introverted best to educate myself. By reading and listening to stories, like Emily Willingham’s, or A.V. Flox’s, or Janet Stemwedel’s story at this year’s Science Online conference. By thinking back to my own blog and commenting behavior on other blogs. By thinking of gender in my own classes and trying to gently stifle the overly confident men and to encourage the overly shy females. Or in my own Scio12 session, where I notice that some people always raise their hands and wait to be called on before speaking… and some feel comfortable and confident enough to raise their hands as they begin speaking. And there always seems to be more men in the “raise hand for 1/2 second, then talk” group. I can’t say that I succeeded, but despite being a bit starstruck by some in the room, I tried to take a stronger tact, to call deliberately on some people or ask some people to wait. And my sons and daughter do lead us to the occasional teaching moment. As one of my sons was learning about “untouchables” in the caste system in India, it led my wife and I to a broader conversation about prejudice, status and injustice.
Sometimes seeing gender means stepping back and giving a woman privacy when she desires it. Of course, in some cases, this could also just be an excuse for my reticence and awkwardness. When I am in circumstances where meeting new people is expected (as at Science Online), it is a real effort. But as I anxiously recite my idiotic meanderings in my head hours later, if my new acquaintance happened to be a woman I wonder if I came across as somehow sketchy or if I said something offensive. I say this not to point out the “dangers” of women speaking out about being creeped out by apparently harmless guys, but that this is the (very small) price I pay for the bad behavior of my brethren. This is the price I pay for not confronting sexism more often.
But most of the time, I don’t meet new people, and I eat, sleep, work, and play without thinking of gender at all. This is the privilege: gender is too often an unknown unknown, a dimension of the world that escapes my notice. The sooner we acknowledge that this is a privilege, the better. I honestly don’t quite have the answer how to do this. But part of it must be that people like me need to see ourselves as having gender (and class, race, sexuality, nationality….). I sometimes wish that rather than having a discussion about blogging while female (a session which I sadly missed–since I am having my class edit Wikipedia this spring, I went to that session), we had a discussion about dealing with trolls, and women could share the awful stuff that they get sent, and the men could say, huh, no trolls remark on my appearance or sexuality or threaten graphic sexual violence. My other thought is that unconscious blindness and prejudice are exactly why we design regulations and policies to prevent discrimination. This is why I try to grade my exams “blind” without knowing which student’s work I have in front of me. This is why some orchestras do blind auditions. With these procedures, a comfortable informality is often a casualty, but upon closer inspection, the price of comfort was social inertia, perpetuating existing gender roles and attitudes, conscious and unconscious. Privacy, anonymity and pseudonimity on the internet no doubt provide great benefit to many, but women shoulder the lion’s share of the costs.
I see my privilege as a debt that I benefit from but no one will ever make me pay. I could ignore those posts, those stories, and continue to let gender pass through me, and not exist, colorblind to the purple. But my daughter will have to live in an ugly purple, gendered world. Our blissful blindness is a debt, collected from our sisters, aunts, wives, and mothers, and paid by our daughters. And when my daughter grows up and starts taking over the world, and meets inevitable sexism, I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and say I have done, and continue to do, my part to chip away at it. I want to look at her and tell her that she doesn’t have to be a female scientist (or a surgeon or a diva) she can just be a scientist, like me.